I had a conversation a few months ago about this question. Those that I were discussing this with made the argument that the “heathen,” the term my correspondent used for those who’ve never heard a part or portion of the gospel in mortality, are without the gospel law in mortality, and therefore they will be judged very much like little children, and will most likely all be exalted. Here is a followup that one of them recently emailed me:
I finally found the scripture I was thinking of when I wrote that “the heathen” who “died without law”, (that is, without having heard any form or portion whatsoever of the gospel) are still likely to be saved (and most likely even exalted) in the Celestial Kingdom.
In his discourse to his son about infant baptism, Mormon throws in those who “without the law” and puts them in the same category as those who die as infants, Moroni 8:22:
“For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing— ”
I’ll admit that there is still room for interpretation in light of Section 76, and of course Christ is the final judge of every individual.
I disagree with this interpretation of Moroni 8:22 (a similar scripture can be found in 2 Nephi 9:25-26). I believe this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel, which has serious repercussions to our understanding of God’s plan of redemption, and the work we do in the temple.
Here is the most crucial point – those that have not heard of the gospel in mortality are not like little children; they are still accountable to the law in the eternities. That is why we are so busy preaching the gospel to them in the spirit world, and performing vicarious ordinances for them in the temple (1 Pet. 3:19; 1 Pet. 4:6; cf. D&C 138). If they were without law eternally, then we would treat them the same as little children, who need no ordinances (except sealings), and they would be exalted without being preached to and without vicarious ordinances. There would be no need to redeem the majority of the dead; our current work in the temple would be in vain. But this is not the case. If one wishes to return to the presence of God, it must be through obedience to the principles and ordinances of the gospel. Baptism is not just for those who have heard the gospel, it is for those who haven’t too.
Every person born into this world, whether they have heard the gospel or not, who has reached the age of eight years of age in good health is accountable to the law, has become capable of exercising their agency to do good or do evil (Moro. 7:16; cf. John 1:9), and is therefore “under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law” (Moro. 8:24). A person does not have to have the gospel fully preached to them to be accountable to the law. Being intelligently capable of choosing between good and evil is all that is required to be accountable to the law. Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written:
When a child reaches the age at which he has sufficient mental, spiritual, and physical maturity to be held accountable before God for his acts, he is said to have arrived at the years of accountability. He then knows right from wrong and can exercise his agency to do good or evil. Accordingly he must pay the penalty for his sins, unless he gains a remission of them through repentance and baptism, “For all men must repent and be baptized, and not only men, but women, and children who have arrived at the years of accountability” (D&C 18:42). ((McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 852))
When we reach the age of eight, it is as if each of us in turn partakes of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and each of us becomes fallen under the law, knowledgeable of the difference between good and evil, accountable to it, expelled from our individual Garden of Edens, escorted out of the Celestial Room of the temple, and cut off from the presence of God our Father. All those who are under such a curse are in need of the principles and ordinances of the gospel in order to be redeemed and come back into the presence of God. Indeed, it is through the principles and ordinances of the gospel that we become like little children again, and are thus able to enter into the Celestial Kingdom of God (3 Ne. 11:38; 3 Ne. 9:22; Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17). This adds understanding to why Christ condemned those who mistreat little children with such strong language (Matt. 18:6; Mark 9:24; Luke 17:2; D&C 121:22). Those who offend little children are offending God Himself. It is because little children are still in God’s presence, they are still in their Garden of Eden, they are still in the Celestial Room, they are innocent before God, and as such are not accountable to the law. They never leave God’s presence, and so they are not in need of gospel principles and ordinances to return them to it (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16).
Because of our fallen state, at some point in mortality or in the spirit world each adult, whether “heathen” or not, will need to have faith in Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, be baptized, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost in order to enter into the kingdom. In addition, in order to be exalted they will need to be sealed in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage and receive a fulness of the ordinances of the temple. If the “heathen” don’t do this, they will not be saved or exalted in the Celestial Kingdom, just the same as any other person above the age of eight who rejects the principles and ordinances of the gospel in mortality.
So how are we to understand Moroni 8:22? How are we to understand 2 Nephi 9:25-26? Those that are “without the law” have the “power of redemption” granted to them through the redemption of the dead, which is the preaching of the gospel in the spirit world and the vicarious ordinance work performed in the temple (1 Pet. 3:19; 1 Pet. 4:6; cf. D&C 138). This is how those “without law” are delivered by the “power of him” through the Atonement. Elder McConkie noted that this is the very work we are doing in the temple today:
Salvation for the dead is the system by means of which those who “die without a knowledge of the gospel” (D&C 128:5) may gain such knowledge in the spirit world and then, following the vicarious performance of the necessary ordinances, become heirs of salvation on the same basis as though the gospel truths had been obeyed in mortality. ((ibid., 685.))
Some might argue, won’t most of those people in the spirit world accept the gospel, be redeemed, and receive exaltation? I don’t think so. People will accept or reject the gospel in the spirit world the same as they do here on Earth. “For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it” (D&C 132:22; Matt. 7:14; 3 Ne. 14:14; 3 Ne. 27:33). Only those who would have fully embraced the gospel in mortality if they had been given the opportunity will be those who receive salvation and exaltation. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught as was revealed to him by God:
All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom, for I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts. (D&C 137:7-8) ((Also in Teachings, p. 107.))
Many of those who purposefully lie, cheat, deceive, murder, fornicate, commit whoredomes, etc., are not those same people who would have fully embraced the gospel in mortality if it had been preached to them. They reject light, truth, and goodness, and in doing so are rejecting the light of Christ. Man knows right from wrong without knowing the fulness of the gospel. Each healthy individual who reaches the age of eight will be held accountable for the light they’ve been given (Moro. 7:16; cf. John 1:9). All mankind will be judged “according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” (D&C 137:8). A full knowledge of the gospel is not required to be so judged. This is why even those who die without a knowledge of the gospel will still be “judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Pet. 4:6).
No, those who die without a knowledge of the gospel will not most likely all be exalted. They will be under the same requirements of the gospel law as the rest of us, and will have their agency to accept or reject it.